Garífuna band drums to keep culture vibrant

Over the past 15 years, the band has played in every state of the U.S. as well as Canada. In 2012, they made it to the finals of the Battle of the Boroughs, a yearly competition to find the best undiscovered musicians in the city, and came in second.

The Bodoma Garifuna Culture Band rehearses.

Locally-based group performs music that harks back to Central American and African traditions

“I for you and you for me.”

This is the first commandment of Garífuna culture. And this is what the Bodoma Garífuna Cultural Band plays for each week, as they drum, sing and dance to keep their culture alive and their community together.

“When you know your history, you love yourself more,” says Linda Lino, a Garífuna leader from Guatemala who was visiting the band on a recent Wednesday night rehearsal to share history and research notes.

The garínagu (plural for garífuna), an ethnic group made up of Africans who were never enslaved and Arawaks and Carib indigenous people, have inhabited the coasts of Honduras and other Central American countries since the late 18th Century and have their own language and culture, according to the non-profit North American Congress on Latin America.

The band was started in 2002, and meets and rehearses from a first-floor apartment facing the street in a NYCHA building on Longfellow Avenue. Bodoma Norales, 42 and the band’s leader, regularly speaks in parables, recounting the culture’s history to anyone who is interested in learning about Garífuna culture. In his view, the 400-year-old ancestral chants that are passed from generation to generation hold proof that their people already inhabited the ancestral lands when his home country of Honduras was founded, making them indigenous.

“The Garífuna people have been invaded many times, including now,” says Norales, short of breath after singing and drumming. “Our homelands are a battleground for access to the sea.”

The band rehearses in band member Andy Ordoñez’s living room, with its bright green walls and instruments and sound equipment scattered everywhere. Ordoñez, 22, was born and raised in Longwood, and growing up, he had to toggle between two worlds. “Inside our home was all Garífuna,” says Ordoñez. “Outside, in the streets of the Bronx I had to adapt to American culture.” He now attends Hostos Community College as full-time student, working towards an associate’s degree in music.

As Ordoñez sees it, Garínagu are part of the cultural landscape that makes the South Bronx a unique place.

“In the Bronx, the cultures are alive — we live among cultures that breathe,” he says. “You walk by a rapper who is rapping and composing at the same time as he walks down the sidewalk.”

Pablo Cesar García, 30, had never left his hometown of Tela, Honduras, when came to live in the Bronx with his father nine years ago. At the beginning it was not easy, coming from a small town and arriving in a big city like New York. Through the Garífuna community Pablo met Norales three years ago and recruited him for the band, despite the fact that Garcia had no musical experience.

“I’ve always been aware that I am Garífuna, but in my home town I never played,” García says. Norales took the time to teach him the “tercera” drum, also known as luruwahn, and to this day, Garcia says, “I am still learning.”

Over the past 15 years, the band has played in every state of the U.S. as well as Canada. In 2012, they made it to the finals of the Battle of the Boroughs, a yearly competition hosted by New York Public Radio to find the best undiscovered musicians in the city, and came in second.

All the band members live in the Bronx, except for one dancer, Jazmín Zapata, 28, who lives in Washington Heights. Born and raised in the Bronx, her parents arrived from Honduras in the ‘70s. Back then, she says, “the attitude was: you are now in America, don’t look back.” But younger generations arriving here have made it important to teach their kids about the culture.

As Garínagu have continued to arrive in the Bronx, they not only find each other via family members or people they knew back in their hometown, but also through social media, where people post about Garífuna social events. Zapata met Norales in one of those gatherings where his band stood out because, she says, “his way of playing is a bit different, like a trademark,” that separates the band from other groups. Norales is also known for lending his drums, a practice not very common between Garífuna drummers.

Most of the Garínagu arriving now are escaping the violence and lack of economic opportunity available to them in Honduras. Still, making it here can also be a challenge and the Garífuna connections help new arrivals find work. Norales has his own HVAC business, and García works with him doing installations and repairs. Zapata works retail, even though she wishes one day she could be a dancer full time.

The band gets paid to play, a symbol of its influence in an industry where most drummers used to get paid in rum. Now, following his lead, many bands also charge to play, giving value to the talent as well as the time and passion young people put into the music.

Norales is always looking for recruits and his only requirement is the adoption of the motto he lives by: discipline comes from wanting something until you achieve it. “The only requisite,” he explains, “is to want to be in a band.”

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